“Race to Nowhere” versus “Race to the Top”

Last night, I experienced an interesting juxtaposition between a movie and the President.

I started my evening with a screening of the documentary, Race to Nowhere (racetonowhere.com). We held it at the West Newton Cinema, with not a seat to spare. Filling the rows were students and parents from our community, ready to address the issues around teen wellness. The movie came to our attention as we have been noticing more and more the pressures that our students seem to be under. And we felt that this was an appropriate time for our community to begin to talk about those very pressures.

We know about all of the stressors in our children’s lives today; we see all the pressures to push toward success. We hear them talk all about how they need to do to be able to get good grades, to be able to post good times for their track teams, to be able to volunteer for different out-of-this-world-amazing charities, to be able to be unique for their college applications, to be able to go to the school of their choosing, to be able to get the job of their dreams, to be able to live the life they think they want… Simply put, many of our kids are achievers and strivers, they are goal-oriented, and with that comes pressure.

Watching the film last night, I was struck by what one of the experts said in his interview. He wondered, “What can we do to create a happy, motivated, creative child?” In a goal-oriented world, I am more and more convinced that we have lost sight of process.

This goal-orientation in our nation was made especially clear last night when I headed home and turned on President Obama’s State of the Union Address. “We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world,” he said to great applause. We are a nation that is dedicated to having the best jobs, to being the most successful people we can be.

But considering these two races—the Race to Nowhere and a Race to the Top—I am left to wonder about the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” Is that not that the golden rung that we as Americans are all grasping for?

In a Jewish context, what goals would we set for our lives should be lived? What does the Jewish tradition have to say about our pursuit toward the idea of happiness? I do not know that we can fully merge the two together. That is because Judaism is a process-oriented religion. We are based in time. The very most significant holiday in our tradition, Shabbat, we know as our palace in time. The meaning of our religion becomes more apparent as we tap into the cycle of our calendar and holidays, and as we return to story and tale year after year in our cycle of Torah readings. We are taught to turn it and turn it and turn it again. In the Jewish mindset, process is paramount. The meaning emerges from the repetition of the cycle, not from ending it at a goal.

I see our students, and they have a lot on their plates. And I wonder what all the striving is for. Certainly we want our children to achieve, and to be successes, but temperance in that pursuit also seems to be prudent these days. I wonder what the expert wondered, how can we help our students to be happy, motivated, and creative? And how does their Jewish identity inform that?

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One thought on ““Race to Nowhere” versus “Race to the Top”

  1. David Freeman says:

    Neil, in every minion I read and reread the prayers which set out what we should strive for as we shape and reshape ourselves. Can they not be used as the fundament for teaching?

    David F

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